5 Up, 5 Down: Joel Embiid has been fully processed

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA as it stands on alternating Monday mornings.

There is lots to be interested in as this young season records its first 20 games. Yes, the Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t as good as we thought they’d be and the Boston Celtics are … mystifying. But so too have a slate of injuries muddled the middle of the pack in the Western Conference and that’s before we get to any of the fun stuff like demanding trades on social media.

Yes, the 2017-18 NBA season has already been exciting and as we touch base for our first edition of 5 Up, 5 Down it’s time to reflect back on some of the best and worst things that have gone on this season.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

5 Up

Tony Parker is back (and the Spurs are still 3rd)

Tony Parker officially announced that he’s coming back to an NBA floor, which is heartening for San Antonio fans. He’s been out since last year with a quad injury, and the team is still somehow in 3rd place. The West is chocked full of injuries this year, so adding back a player — even a waning one like Parker — will always help.

The Pistons are … good?

It’s never fun to fault runs like the one going on in Detroit because of sample size. We’re now a quarter of the way through the season so it’s time to say it: I think the Pistons are good. Put it this way — if I told you before the season started that Charlotte would be twice as many games back as Detroit to start December, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that the Hornets weren’t even a playoff team in this scenario.

Joel Embiid is fully processed

Everybody loves this cat, and they should given how good he’s been this year coupled with the success of the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s played in 16 out of 18 games and maintained his staggering advanced numbers from last year. If he stays on the court and the Sixers make the playoffs, I assume Sam Hinkie will parachute from the rafters at the Wells Fargo Center during lineups for the first postseason game. Plus, his social media game has only grown stronger.

The NBA supports Colin Kaepernick

At least some folks do. LeBron James has been supportive of the former NFL quarterback turned civil rights activist and charitable donor. So too has Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy. We didn’t get anthem protests like we anticipated to start the year in the NBA, but it appears players and coaches still aren’t afraid to speak their minds.

The one and done could finally be on its way out

This rule hurts players and has the appearance of mitigating risk for NBA teams in the draft while propagating an amateur system that doesn’t pay fair value for labor. I’m still not 100% convinced the league’s own risk protection doesn’t also flip some franchises out of top players by forcing them to abstain from the league and pushing them to subsequent drafts. Many one-and-done players don’t pan out in either case, so I’m not sure the rule is having its intended effect anyway. Let’s go already.

5 Down

Kawhi Leonard is still out

It’s always good when your Hall of Fame, seen-it-all-coach says he’s never seen an injury like yours, right? Tony Parker coming back before Leonard feels like some kind of ominous signal that I’m too afraid to broach this early in the year. At least San Antonio fans can clutch their, uh, 19 championship rings for comfort while they wait.

The Blazers keep winning by accident

Washington certainly did their part to stink up the joint on Saturday, but Portland beat both the Nets and Wizards this weekend sort of by mistake. This came despite late game missed FTs, dumb fouls, and slow offensive possessions in the final two minutes. CJ McCollum — good in a panic, apparently — is Portland’s saving grace this year. The Blazers 3-1 record on the road this trip is asking for a regression to the mean. The Blazers offense needs to figure it out.

We need to restart this season and set injuries to OFF

Wrap your star player in bubble wrap and stick him in a downtown penthouse loft filled to the brim with packing peanuts. Even that might not work, he might chafe his skin on the styrofoam and be out 4-6 weeks. Paul Millsap, the aforementioned Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Patrick Beverley, Mike Conley — just about every team has suffered an injury to a key player. The middle of the West is a mess because of it, although the upside might be that March becomes even more interesting than usual as a bunch of .500 teams try to fight their way back with healthy stars.

Derrick Rose might be donezo

This is sad if only from an empathy perspective. Imagine having won the 2011 NBA MVP only to spend the next six years deep in the bowels of a training center with nothing but a bosu ball and a physical therapist named Clint to keep you company (in this scenario I also assume Clint won’t stop talking to you about the benefits of ketosis). That’s basically been Rose’s life after multiple injuries, and him taking time away from the Cavaliers is a major bummer.

Free Jahlil Okafor

The basketball fan in me wants to scream about what the Sixers are waiting for because I’d like to see Greg Monroe Okafor play actual basketball. Of course, Philadelphia is just trying to do their best Bill Belichick impression here and wait out the market to get their top return. It’s hard to imagine how interest on Okafor hasn’t already bottomed out by now, so maybe the whole thing has backfired and the Colangelos are up a creek. They apparently have lowered the asking price, so maybe we get this trade sooner rather than later. In any case, I can’t wait to see Okafor in a Nets uniform. He’s going to look great.

As he chases record, LeBron says he has ‘no relationship’ with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers
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Later this season, health permitting, LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Kareem has said LeBron has earned it, but also has called out LeBron on COVID issues (something Abdul-Jabbar apologized for). Have the two legends started to build a relationship as LeBron marches toward the record? Not so much.

“No thoughts, no relationship.”

This question was asked of LeBron days after Abdul-Jabbar slammed former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving in a Substack newsletter, calling him a “comical buffoon” and saying he is a poor role model. Abdul-Jabbar has been a vocal proponent of getting the vaccine, Irving remains unvaccinated, and LeBron has posted on social media questioning the severity of the virus and the response. Plus, LeBron and Irving are friends, which could have sparked LeBron’s terse response (as could the fact he was ready to get out of the arena after a dull preseason game).

A week earlier at media day, LeBron had been kinder when discussing Abdul-Jabbar and chasing his record.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well,” LeBron said. “I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Abdul-Jabbar has been more of a public persona in recent years, both around the game of basketball and discussing social justice issues through his writings. The NBA named its new social justice award after him. With that has come new relationships around the league.

One of those is not with LeBron. Will Abdul-Jabbar be in the building when LeBron does break the record?

We’ve got months for this relationship to evolve — if it does — before that big day.

 

Watch Zion Williamson score 13 in return to court for Pelicans

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Zion Williamson is back.

He certainly looked in better shape and flashed his insane explosiveness on his way to 13 points and four rebounds in 15 minutes Tuesday night against the Bulls, his first game after missing all of last season following foot surgery.

There was some rust, and the Pelicans are wisely bringing him along slowly and not breaking out the entire playbook for a preseason game, but in the moments we saw Zion looked like he was all the way back.

The questions now are can he sustain it, and how to the Pelicans mesh him with other scoring options in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.

And maybe we shouldn’t leave rookie Dyson Daniels off that list, he looked good in his first NBA preseason game.

The Pelicans are one of the most intriguing teams this season, a team that made the playoffs last season with a push after McCollum arrived, and now they add the elite interior scoring and athleticism of Zion to Ingram’s outside shot and slashing, not to mention and a solid core of role players. This team has top six potential if it can get stops. But in a deep West, nothing will be easy.

Wembanyama scores 37, Scoot Henderson 28, as both make case to go No.1

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The NBA league office hates tanking — the action, the word, the mere suggestion of it.

But there is going to be some serious tanking in the NBA this season, and anybody who watched the Victor Wembanyama vs. Scoot Henderson game Tuesday (also known as the G-league Ignite vs.  Metropolitans 92 from France) knows exactly why.

What. A. Show.

Victor Wembanyama, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, showed why he is a true 7’4″ unicorn who can do seemingly anything. He finished the game with 37 points, hitting 7-of-11 from 3, with five blocks, showed off some handles and even brought the ball up court a couple of times.

This play sums him up well: at 7’4″ Wembanyama is the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, looks smooth, and when the defender goes under the pick casually drains a 3.

Scoot Henderson, expected to go No.2 in the next draft, flashed his explosive athleticism to the tune of 28 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.

Ja Morant was impressed.

There was a lot for fans, scouts, and GMs to be impressed with.

For all his shooting an offensive game, Wembanyama was just as impressive on defense. His length and mobility forces players to change their driving angles to the rim. He also showed a fearlessness in going after the big block.

Henderson showed high-level athleticism and an ability to get to the rim at will, but he also set up teammates and an improving shot. Henderson is a dynamic athlete and a season playing against the men of the G League is only going to sharpen his skills.

Henderson made his case Tuesday to be the No.1 pick — scouts say he has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone point guard, a top-10 player in the league, and he looked it in this game. He showed no fear, even going at Wembanyama a few times.

However, Wembanyama will go No.1 because he just breaks the mold, there is nobody like him. Anywhere. He looks like a generational talent, even if there is some work to do to realize it. Wembanyama started to show that Tuesday night.

These two teams face off again on Thursday night in Henderson, Nevada.

Royce O’Neal on Durant, Irving trade rumors: ‘That was the summer’

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets
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The Brooklyn Nets are trying to move on from a turbulent, awkward summer where their two best players tried to get tradedone throwing down a “me or the coach and GM” ultimatum — and they are tired of talking about it.

It sounds like they have moved on from the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving drama in the locker room, at least based on what Royce O’Neal told Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

“That was the summer. Nobody cares about it now. We’re all here, and we’re going to make it work. We have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to go. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

No doubt that is the mantra in the locker room, and it’s easy to do during the carefree, optimistic days of training camp or even the first preseason games. The players believe they have moved on.

The real question about these Nets is what happens when adversity hits? And it will hit, it does every team. How will Ben Simmons handle the stress? Irving? Can coach Steve Nash keep the Nets all on task, or will the finger-pointing start, and will the locker room get split?

Those questions are why everyone is finding it hard to predict these Nets — they could win a ring, they could have Durant demanding a trade again by Christmas. Most likely they land in the middle somewhere, but every possibility is on the table.

Speaking of teams being broken up, Scotto also asked about O’Neal’s former team, the Utah Jazz, and Danny Ainge’s decision to trade Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this summer. Ainge said “this team didn’t believe in each other,” but that’s not how O’Neal saw it. He was surprised the team was blown up.

“I was definitely shocked. I had been there for five years. The team we had for a couple of years fell short. I thought we were going to build on it. Things happened, so keep it moving.”

The question is will the Nets keep moving when things get hard?